Two Incredible Games Go Head-to-Head (Because People Like Matchups)
Without a doubt, Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 (Metacritic score 97) and FromSoftware’s Elden Ring (Metacritic score 96) are two of the most lauded open-world games ever released. They’re certainly in my personal top 5. Elden Ring appeared this year. Red Dead Redemption 2 was released in 2018. At least on the PC, they’re both supported by tons of mods, loyal fanbases, and thriving subcultures. But which game is actually better?
For purposes of this head-to-head showdown, we’re going to look at five aspects of each game. The categories are world design, story/characters, action, multiplayer, and longevity. No matter which game comes out on top, we’re all winners because we can play these awesome games.
In sheer size, Elden Ring’s 30 square mile map is over double that of Red Dead 2’s relatively small, 12 square miles. But size alone is meaningless. There are vast, nearly empty regions of Elden Ring’s Mountaintops of the Giants, and a few other areas seem bigger than their content supports. Red Dead 2’s map might be smaller, but it is packed with wildlife, secrets, odd characters and side quests. Things are much more realistically “alive” in Red Dead 2, whereas the enemies in Elden Ring do little outside of combat.
Both worlds have distinct and varied zones. Of course, Red Dead 2 is limited to recreating “real world” spaces. Elden Ring, being a fantasy RPG, only has to adhere to its lore and the overall gothic aesthetic that’s a hallmark of the Dark Souls franchise. While Red Dead 2 has elements of the supernatural, Elden Ring has a vast catalogue of monsters, humanoid and human enemies. They’re both great, for different reasons.
Traversal is critical in any open-world game. Elden Ring’s Torrent is a very different horse than the more realistic mounts in Red Dead. Both games have fast travel systems. Thanks to Red Dead 2’s potential for emergent gameplay, it’s rare to have the same exact world encounters more than once. In Elden Ring, most enemies respawn in the same places each time.
FINAL SCORE: TIE
Story and Characters
If there’s one area in which Elden Ring and Red Dead 2 are fundamentally different, it’s in the way they approach story and characters. FromSoftware has a history of storytelling that is opaque, convoluted and, to many players, entirely incidental. Elden Ring has dozens of NPCs with quests and backstories, many of which are critical to opening up areas of the game or new gear. Many players have finished a run of Elden Ring oblivious to vast amounts of content they missed or ignored. Despite the difficulty of experiencing some of it, the narrative and lore in Elden Ring are more coherent than in other games in the Dark Souls franchise.
Red Dead Redemption 2 has a very strong central narrative with a lot of emotional range. Players sometimes ignore it, preferring to explore and focus on side quests. At some point, though, Arthur Morgan and his tale become necessary components of the Red Dead 2 experience. The differences between Elden Ring’s NPCs and Red Dead 2’s are significant. The latter feels like flesh-and-blood characters, sometimes with a sense of humor, sometimes tortured by moral dilemmas.
In Elden Ring, the player character is a unique creation and the RPG elements make each playthrough unique. In Read Dead 2, all players are Arthur Morgan. There’s a huge variety of cosmetic items and choices that can shape the narrative, but in the end, the story beats remain the same.
FINAL SCORE: RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2
Red Dead 2’s reliance on a specific time and place means that weapons are more or less constrained by historical accuracy. Lots of liberties are taken, of course. And firearms are not the only way of dispatching enemies. Knives, bows, explosives and the environment can all be used to advantage. Rockstar games have never been known for their fine-tuned shooting mechanics, but Read Dead 2’s combat is pretty satisfying.
Like all FromSoftware games, the range of weapons, magic, armor and consumables available means that crafting a specific action playstyle becomes the heart of the game. No other developer gets the feel and the timing of combat like FromSoft. No other games can match the balance of challenge and accessibility, either. Though there are a few duds and reskinned monsters, Elden Ring has well over 100 bosses and minibosses and most of them are a blast to fight.
FINAL SCORE: ELDEN RING
FromSoftware invented the multiplayer mechanics of summoning and invasions. Each game refines them a little, but they’re a great example of “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” Actually, some folks would say multiplayer is broken, and there are all sorts of cheats, exploits and meta-game mechanics that can frustrate average players and ruin their day. That said, playing with and against other players can be extremely satisfying, and the main reason many people come to the Dark Souls franchise.
Red Dead Redemption 2 also has multiplayer, an entire gated-off world that’s separate from the single-player game. Plagued by bugs, cheaters, a broken economy and a demanding cash shop, Red Dead’s Online world is becoming a ghost town. There’s a lot of potential fun in the jobs system and open-ended gameplay, but the developers no longer add new content. Red Dead Online is on life support.
FINAL SCORE: ELDEN RING
I still play through the original Dark Souls at least once a year, eleven years after release. Ditto most of the games in the franchise. The novelty of the bosses and maps has long since faded, but deep familiarity and still-satisfying action have replaced it. I have no doubt that I will be playing Elden Ring (and probably, its expansions and maybe its sequel) for years.
I’ve also come back to Red Dead Redemption 2 several times over the past four years. It still transports me to a different time and place in history, and I still enjoy the characters and appreciate the ridiculous amount of detail in the world. But I almost never see it through to the finale. I’ve seen the possible endings to Arthur’s story. I know what happens. And Rockstar has steadfastly refused to add DLC, saving whatever ideas they have for RDR 3.
FINAL SCORE: ELDEN RING
And, We Have a Winner!
Neither Elden Ring nor Red Dead Redemption 2 are in danger of being forgotten anytime soon. Red Dead 2 has sold 44 million copies, and Elden Ring, 13 million. Both games are significant achievements artistically, technically and financially. But when it comes to our categories, at least, Elden Ring deserves its place in the winner’s circle.
Do you agree or disagree? Would you like to see a matchup of Elden Ring and Breath of the Wild? Let us know!